Is there anything more uncomfortable than an elephant in the room?
You know what I mean:
There’s something going on. Everybody knows about it. It’s on everyone’s mind. Everyone knows that everyone else knows, but they STILL won’t talk about it.
Don’t you hate that?
How many family dinners have passed in awkward silence all because people can’t or won’t break the ice on an uncomfortable, but still important, subject? Worse yet, how many families or friends have simply given up on each other after a while because of something that needed to be said, but no one would summon the courage to say it?
Most of the time, our socially conditioned interpersonal skills lead us in the direction of etiquette, maintaining the status quo, and not rocking the boat.
But there is a time and a place for polite restraint and there is a time and a place for taking a chance on each other. In order for our deepest and closest relationships to survive, someone has to stand up and fight for the relationship, even if it means saying something uncomfortable.
Those moments are never fun, but they are necessary. And when they’re over and done with, so long as everyone stays true to themselves and true to one other, most relationships are better off for having had the hard conversation.
In this morning’s gospel reading, we have a record of one such awkward conversation that needed to happen. The conversation is between Jesus and Peter. It takes place after Jesus’ resurrection. Twice already, the risen Christ had appeared to the disciples and offered words of peace and reassurance. Jesus had even breathed the Holy Spirit into them and commissioned them to go and preach the gospel. However, all was still not well.
Peter, rather than taking up the apostle’s calling, had gone back to the life he knew before he followed Jesus: fishing. Not a bad profession or pastime, but certainly less than the high calling that had been placed on Peter’s life.
Something was still missing. Peter wasn’t ready. He had some unfinished business with Jesus. One might say that it was his “elephant in the room.”
If you think about it, you might even remember what it was. A few days earlier, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter had pledged his undying allegiance to Jesus. Peter said that he would die for Jesus, even everyone else turned tail and ran.
But that didn’t happen.
When the moment of truth came, what did Peter do? He denied that he even knew Jesus. Not once, but three times in a night. His spirit was willing, but the rest of him was weak.
Jesus had even tried to warn Peter that this was coming. Somehow, call it intuition or clairvoyance, Jesus knew that this would happen. He tried to comfort Peter, saying that everything was going to be okay, in spite of Peter’s upcoming failure of nerve.
But when all was said and done, Peter’s spirit was broken by his denial. Even after seeing Jesus rise from the dead, he couldn’t bring himself to take his old place at his rabbi’s side. His betrayal was too deep and his crime to heinous to be forgiven. Whatever words of comfort and commissioning Jesus might have for the others, Peter felt sure that those words were not meant for him. No, he would go back to the only life he knew: fishing.
It seems that Jesus and the other apostles didn’t share this overly negative opinion of Peter and his qualifications for ministry. They stood by him, even as he returned to life as a fisherman. Jesus even arranged a kind of intervention on the beach after a long night on the job for Peter.
As they sat together, eating breakfast, Jesus turned to Peter and called him by his given name, “Simon son of John.” Peter, Greek for “Rock,” was a nickname that Jesus have given him early on in their time together. Jesus asked Simon Peter three times, “Do you love me?” After each question, Peter replied, “Yes.” And Jesus responded, “Feed my sheep.”
The fact that Jesus did this three times is important. Can you guess why? It’s because three was the number of times that Peter had previously denied that he knew Jesus. That denial was the source of Peter’s paralyzing shame. And that shame was keeping Peter from becoming the person he was meant to be. It was his elephant in the room.
Something needed to be said, but what? Who would break the silence of shame that was holding Peter back? As you might expect, Jesus took the initiative, as if to say, “Don’t worry fellas, I got this.”
Three times, Jesus gets Peter to say that he loves him. And three times, Jesus reminds Peter of the calling on his life. In a sense, Jesus was healing the wounds of the past by giving Peter a “do-over.” Rather than only healing sick, blind, and lame people, Jesus was healing his relationship with Peter. He had the guts to stand up and fight for that relationship by talking about the elephant in the room.
In the end, it worked. Peter walked away from that tough conversation a changed man and went on to take his place as a leader in the early church. Dealing with the elephant in the room, even when it’s tough, has its benefits.
Today, we’re continuing with the second sermon in a six week series on the Great Ends of the Church. It’s based on a document produced by Presbyterians about 100 years ago. Behind each of these Great Ends is the question, “Why are we here?” It’s all about what it means to be the Church. On Easter Sunday, we talked about the first Great End of the Church, which is “The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.” This week, we’re talking about the second Great End of the Church, which is “The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”
Now, of all the Great Ends of the Church, “The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God” is the one that most Presbyterians think they have down pat. Their first thought is, “Well, of course we do that. We’re a friendly, welcoming church. If only we could get more people through the front door, they would join our church and stay forever because we’re basically nice people.”
I don’t want to downplay the importance of being nice, but I think too many Christians in mainline denominations settle for being nice as their whole definition of shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship. More than that, I’ve even noticed that a lot of them aren’t even really that nice. What they really mean to say is that they’re polite. They settle for a kind of “live and let live” libertarianism that tries not to get involved with the personal lives and problems of others. Before long, their politeness gives rise to a culture of silence and people end up sitting next to each other in the pews for decades without ever really getting to know one another on a deep level.
Here in this fragmented and isolated society that we live in, polite standoffishness at church does nothing to break the ice of loneliness for hurting people. If we really want to live up to our calling, which is the “shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God,” then we have to go deeper in our relationships with each other. We have to break the silence, take a chance on our neighbor, and have those uncomfortable conversations.
Brennan Manning, one of my favorite spiritual authors (who passed away just two days ago), writes a story about two drunks sitting together in a bar in Poland. The first one, Pietrov, says to the other, “Ivan, do you love me?”
“Yes,” Ivan responds.
Pietrov: “Then tell me what hurts me.”
Ivan: “How should I know what hurts you?”
Pietrov: “If you don’t know what hurts me, how can you say you love me?”
If we want to truly love each other as a faith community, we have to learn about our neighbor’s pain. This is more than just offering sympathy in the form of a greeting card or a casserole during moments of crisis, we actually have to get our hands dirty and meet one another in the midst of our messiness. We have to have those hard talks about things like addiction, mental illness, aging, and coming out of the closet as gay. Most of us would rather not go there. It feels too hard. It’s awkward. We’re afraid that we might say the wrong thing.
But you know what? I’ve sat with many people in those hard moments… I’ve sat with many of you in those hard moments, and do you know what I’ve discovered? Most people don’t remember a single word you say. All they remember is that you were there… and it means the world to them.
Most people don’t want sage advice or theological answers that explain their questions away. Most of them just want to know that they’re not alone in this world. That’s why they come to church.
People just want to have a safe space where they can open their hearts and unburden themselves of their troubles. They yearn to know that there’s someone somewhere who will love and accept them no matter what they may have said or done.
They want to be vulnerable, which is one of the most frightening yet necessary parts of the human experience. Dr. Brene Brown is currently the world’s most well-known expert on the subject of vulnerability. She has written a book called Daring Greatly that’s all about vulnerability in relationships.
Dr. Brown writes, “[Daring greatly] means the courage to be vulnerable. It means to show up and be seen. To ask for what you need. To talk about how you’re feeling. To have the hard conversations.” Later on, she writes, “I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. To be human is to be in vulnerability.
When we say that part of our job, as the Church, is to provide for “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God”, it has to mean that we are more than just an organization of people who are polite and nice. It has to mean that we are the kind of community that creates safe space in which other people, outsiders, can make themselves vulnerable.
And, in order to do that, we have to break the culture of silence and go deep with ourselves and each other. We have to share our hurts and joys with one another. We have to bring our questions and experiences into our conversations and relationships. We have to get personal and carry one another’s burdens.
If we can do this, we will begin to embody the kind of healing presence that our hurting world so desperately needs. We will find ourselves growing internally as a church, which is the key to growing numerically as a church. We have to take a chance on each other, which is also to say that we have to prove ourselves trustworthy of such risk. We have to hold our neighbors’ stories in confidence, treasuring them as the precious gifts that they are.
As we learn this art of vulnerability and sharing, I believe that the presence of the risen Christ will become more and more obvious in our church community. I believe that people in the broader community will be attracted to the kind of church that provides for the “shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”
Will you take that chance with me?
One place where this kind of vulnerable sharing has been happening is at our Monday night Vespers service and book study. We get together each week to sing, pray, and discuss whatever book we’re reading. The round-table dialogue is where the real miracle happens. In the end, it’s not so much about the material in the book as it’s about our lives. Yes, we’ve all learned new things from the material, but none of that compares with how much we’ve learned from each other. We’ve taken the risk to become vulnerable and made safe space for others to do the same. Those relationships, more than anything else, have been the real fruit of this enterprise. If you haven’t come to Vespers before, I’d like to extend the invitation again. We meet on Monday evenings at 6pm. If you can’t make it then, don’t worry. Our church offers other opportunities for that kind of sharing and growth. There’s the Tuesday morning Prayer Group or the monthly study with the In His Name Women’s Missionary Society. All of these are groups where deep discussion happens on a regular basis. You might also find it by singing with others in the choir or serving as a deacon or elder. All of these moments are opportunities that God gives us for clearing the elephants out of the room, for breaking the silence of loneliness, and for growing together as a church community that provides for “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”